When a house for refugees in this lakeside resort burned to the ground the day before 86 Africans were to move in, authorities quickly caught and convicted a teenage neo-Nazi.

The extremist element allowed Germans to reassure themselves that the xenophobic sentiments behind the crime were confined to those on the fringes of society.Then the arsonist started talking, and prosecutors uncovered what they say was a conspiracy involving not only disaffected youths but also otherwise upstanding citizens who wanted to keep the asylum-seekers out.

The case, along with recent electoral successes for a far-right party, has raised new questions about the breadth of anti-foreigner sentiment in Germany, especially in the formerly closed and communist east.

The trial of five men accused in the arson plot opened Friday in Brandenburg state court in Frankfurt an der Oder. Four were charged with complicity in the Nov. 1, 1992, crime and the fifth with being an accessory. Shortly after it began, the trial was recessed until Tuesday on a defense motion.

While they and two others awaiting trial on perjury charges are the only ones charged, prosecutor Petra Marx says she believes most of Dolgenbrodt's 300 residents share the blame.

"They might not have been actively involved," she said. "But the atmosphere in the village was not the best at that time, everyone admits.

"The moral guilt that many in the village carry, that's not something we can go after with legal means but has to be dealt with in the political arena."

Karl Pfannenschwarz, mayor since 1993, denies that people in Dolgenbrodt, just southeast of Berlin, are racist. He says everyone has condemned the house-burning.

Then he tries to explain: The town was told initially that Gypsies were moving into the building, which had been a summer lodge for children during communist times, and feared a crime wave.

"People were afraid . . . that their houses would be broken into," Pfannenschwarz said in an interview in his brick lakeshore villa.

Silvio Jaskowski, who was 18 at the time, was arrested in May 1993 and convicted in 1996 of setting the blaze. He was sentenced to two years on probation.

Jaskowski told prosecutors the townspeople had paid him to commit the crime, although residents denied that.

Last year, however, the alleged mastermind confessed.

Prosecutors say Thomas Oste, 41, who lived next door to the planned refugee home with his wife and two young children, told them he paid Jaskowski $1,100 to set the fire and another $5,700 later to keep quiet.